Muppets and Genius Marked Jim Henson's Inspiring Career

NOT long ago someone told me about two counselors at a summer camp in 1990 who had their heads together discussing a pressing problem of the day. At their side an eight-year-old camper was trying impatiently to get their attention about a minor matter. Nothing could make the kid wait; he simply would not desist - until he heard one counselor mention, in an aside, that Jim Henson had just died.

The news brought the other counselor up short. And it stopped the child's nagging. Suddenly he joined the adult conversation - a rare event. The news meant more to him than to the adults.

The reason, of course, is that Henson was one of the few people who arced so well between the world of young kids and adults, between childhood imagination and adult entertainment.

A TV program that can reveal even a little of the ``why'' is making a big contribution to understanding pop culture. Next Wednesday's ``Great Performances'' on PBS makes a rewarding try at doing just that. Called ``The World of Jim Henson'' (9-10:30 p.m.), it is a richly detailed recounting of how Henson and his hugely talented colleagues turned puppetry into a mass-media art form that revolutionized kids' TV and made grownups conscious of puppetry's potential for symbolic meaning.

The show is full of delightful footage and insightful interviews. If it does not truly establish what made Henson - and especially his Muppets - so deeply rooted and permanent a success, this is probably because there is no entirely rational explanation. Trying to explain Henson's ability to create memorable puppet people, Muppeteer Frank Oz, a career-long colleague of Henson's, says, ``I can talk for hours about character building, but the truth is, I don't know.''

If he doesn't, no one does. You can say how it all happened, and the program does this in a lively fashion - discussing, for instance, Henson's rejection of limitation, technical or imaginative. And you can analyze what the Muppets and other Henson creations meant to people - their universal appeal.

Why seems beyond reach. Yet this fact doesn't detract from the enormous fun of seeing Henson's work as a whole on this program, or from ingesting the considerable insights - into all but the central mystery of Henson's genius - lodged in the remarks from his co-workers and admirers.

Puppetry, Henson told me not long before he died, was just a way of getting a job on a television station in the 1950s. Almost before he knew what was happening, he was enjoying TV success in a puppet show for grownups. This documentary is a breathless review of what happened after that. Full of quick jumps and snippets of interviews, it rushes eagerly - too eagerly and unchecked at times - to plumb the the riches of the Henson heritage. Shots of Henson's colleagues - young, then older, then young again - are folded unchronologically into the mix.

Henson, as the show makes clear, knew how important the Muppets had become and also knew it didn't matter. Doing a good job was the thing, so he drove his staff, and they were willing to be driven because they knew they were part of a unique process.

He was, Oz says, an instigator of silliness, a man who uncorked the bottle of ideas among his colleagues. Underneath the zaniness of the Muppets was a decency, a sweetness without wimpiness. Henson once told me he believed strongly in this aspect of human nature, and the Muppets clearly showed it.

Author Maurice Sendak says they were ``so simple you were astonished. If it was funny it was by accident.''

It was clearly the shock of recognition. Henson felt Big Bird was the child. The huge yellow creature understood the world no more than kids did and made the same mistakes. Francis Ford Coppola observes that Henson combined the simple and the fantastic. That's probably what allowed the Muppets to embody kids' basic attitudes, freed from the constraints of logic and realism.

TV will probably be offering Henson tributes like this one more or less indefinitely. I hope so.

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